Belgrade is the center from where Russian policy in the Balkans is conducted.
By: Dženana Karup Druško
Because of his activities, Milorad Dodik was put on the American black list, and the High Representative is considering to propose a ban on his travels to European countries. There is no doubt that the isolation of Milorad Dodik is an important matter in stopping him from destroying Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that the USA and other members of the Quint, who are also the guarantors of the Dayton peace agreement, really can influence Dodik. This is confirmed by his signing of the Reform Program document, and even more by his retreat following the most recent crisis when he tried to block the state institutions and announced secession of the Republika Srpska. However, equally important is the role of Aleksandar Vučić, who fully supports Dodik. In all this, of course, it is clear now that both Dodik and Vučić are in turn fully supported by Russia and that the Russian Federation is working to achieve the objectives of its foreign policy in BiH, as well as in the Western Balkans, using a new kind of warfare.
As recently announced by its president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine will in future mark the 26th of February as the Day of Resistance against “Russian occupation of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia six years ago“. On the other hand, Moscow takes stand that the Crimea peninsula was simply “returned” to its “historical” native country.
Following the developments in Ukraine that ended with annexation of Crimea in 2014, which included the staged referenda and organized public voting plebiscites, strong media propaganda , “spontaneous” dissatisfaction of people, “mysterious” para-military formations of which it was “not known” where they came from… all the way until the annexation of Crimea – one of the questions that were asked by the strategists, military analysts and security experts was: will the new external policy of Russia stop at Ukraine, or will they point their newly developed forms of warfare against other countries, specifically those that are within the zone of influence that the Russians consider their own?
The breaking point– Putin seizing power
In his paper “War in eastern Ukraine 2016”, Stanislav Linić says. “The year 1999, when the former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin won the power, can be considered the turning point that has had decisive influence on European security. Importance of his statement given at that time that the “collapse of the USSR had been the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century” became clear only much later. Since his coming into power, Putin has been committed to re-establishing the Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe and regaining its military power.”
Although certain aspects of the new Russian strategy had been observed even earlier (e.g. cyber-attacks in 2007 against servers of the Estonian government, banks and media outlets that had completely blocked the country for a period of several days; 2008 attack against Georgia), the developments in Ukraine demonstrated to all that this new kind of warfare was perfected and represents a real danger. In this new method of warfare, Vladimir Putin has combined the work of intelligence and military services, diplomats, media, non-governmental organizations, companies, banks, cultural associations… thus erasing all previously known boundaries.
General Philip Breedlove, then commander of NATO forces for Europe, pointed that the Russian hybrid war should be in main focus because the Russian attention, he said, was not limited only to Ukraine, but presented a real security threat to the rest of Europe too. Therefore, it is no surprising that following the developments in Ukraine, the concern was soon felt in Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Norway, Sweden, Finland…
Reasons for concern were plenty, because contrary to other forms of warfare known to history so far, when the state of war, goals and intentions had been formally declared and the sides were clear, one of the most important features of this new kind of warfare, which is generally known also under the name of hybrid war (although some theoreticians disagree with this equalization), is that the truth about what is actually going on is kept concealed for as long as possible, together with the answers to why with what aim, and who are the actors. All this is an additional danger because if, for example, Russian forces were to cross borders of one of the Baltic countries, this would constitute a clear act of aggression which would automatically, based on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, trigger the NATO response.
However, if the war broke out and were waged within a country, with a certain group of people claiming that they were threatened in some way and that is why they wanted the change of government or secession, organized a referendum about it, caused internal conflicts, organized massive public gatherings exercising a limited amount of violence and demanding change, and then the foreign agents or paramilitary formations showed up – the NATO forces cannot intervene.
The new Russian kind of warfare is also called the Gerasimov’s Doctrine, after the Russian general Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, who was appointed by Vladimir Putting as Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia in 2012. General Gerasimov published in a military magazine on 26th February 2013 the text titled “Value of knowledge in predictions: new challenges require rethinking of the forms and methods of conducting military operations”, where he says that in the 21st century there is a clear trend of blurring the “boundary between war and peace”, and that “there is no more classic declaration of war”, and that the wars, once they break out, tend to run following some unknown patterns. General Gerasimov wrote in his paper that Russia must adjust and turn towards non-conventional methods. Which were those, became apparent several months later in Ukraine.
A more thorough analysis of the Gerasimov’s doctrine begun only after the Russian attack against Ukraine. Janis Berzins, Director of the Latvian Center for Security and Strategic Studies and lecturer at the NATO school, believes that the Russian view of contemporary warfare is based on the assumption that the mind is the most important battlefield: “As a result, in the new generation of war, the informational and psychological warfare is predominant”. According to him, in the current geopolitical setting, the main opponent of Russia is the Western civilization, its values, culture, political system and ideology.
Dr. Phillip Karber, president of the Potomac Institute and Professor at the Georgetown School conducted, on invitation by the Ukrainian government, a research aimed at examining how was the Russian strategy of the “new generation warfare” implemented in practice. In his paper “Russian Style Hybrid Warfare” he lists five factors of hybrid warfare: 1. political subversion manifested in infiltration of agents, use of information technology and mobilization of mass media, bribing or intimidating local leaders (political, military etc.), liquidations, acts of terrorism; 2. creating refuges by proxy forces is an important step for the success of the hybrid warfare, because it is the phase when strategically important locations in the targeted country are taken – like government buildings, military bases, police stations, etc. In this phase, the rebels are armed and trained, the transport capacities are impacted, cyber attacks have compromised communication infrastructure etc.; 3. intervention – involves engagement of conventional forces at the borders of the targeted country, and this is often disguised as a military exercise of a larger scale, and frequently mobilizing all military branches. This includes establishment of training and logistic camps in the immediate vicinity of the targeted country; 4. intimidation and/or exploitation of the population; 5. manipulation, which results with blurring the state of war and accountability of the stakeholders.
According to Kerber, there are three stages of hybrid war: destabilization of the country by encouraging internal conflict, causing collapse of the state by destroying economy and infrastructure; and replacing the local political leadership by one’s own operatives.
Serbian pressures against BiH and Montenegro
How great is the threat of this new method of warfare employed by the Russian Federation is well illustrated by the statement of some years ago by general Marko Carleton-Smith, commander of the British army, when he said that Great Britain “cannot be at peace in view of the threat the Russia represents”, and that Russia has now become a “much greater threat” to national security of Great Britain than the groups of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). During his state visit to the United States of America in April 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “He (Putin, author’s note) intervenes everywhere, I mean in Europe and in the United States of America, wanting to weaken our democracies.”
The dimensions of the hybrid warfare are manifested in the foreign policy, and changes in the foreign policy of Russian Federation are directly liked to Vladimir Putin becoming the President. One of major characteristics of this policy is that it hides its true objectives and intentions; however, after numerous events (some are mentioned in the first part of the text), it is clear that the objective of Russian policy at global level is to cause disruptions, provoke crises and work towards strengthening distrust in the Western values and democratic system of Rule of Law – the same objectives that Moscow had been striving to achieve during the Cold War. Demolition of the Berlin Wall and former members of the Eastern Block joining NATO has caused Russia to change the ways in which they want to achieve them.
In March 2018, when testifying before the Armed Forces Committee of the US Senate, the NATO forces commander in Europe, general Curtis Scaparotti, said that Russia’s growing influence in Europe was the biggest problem on both the civilian and military stage, particularly in the Western Balkans. He said that Russia was using its good relations with Republika Srpska’s officials to undermine BiH institutions. When asked what country was the biggest problem in the region, he answered – Serbia.
Prof. Dr. Nedžad Korajlić, dean of the Faculty for Criminalists, Criminology and Security Studies of the Sarajevo University, when he was a guest in the program Res Fact to discuss relations between NATO and Bosnia and Herzegovina, speaking of security in the region, as one of the problems he talked about the hybrid warfare. “Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region are exposed to hybrid warfare by the eastern countries, primarily Russia, Serbia and some other countries who have their interests there”.
Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, Žako Korać, in his interview of 1st of March 2020 to the Radio Free Europe, said: “Montenegro is exposed to absolute pressure by Serbia, to which Europe has no response. At this time, Serbia most directly interferes with the internal matters of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. This is the same political matrix that had prevailed in the nineties. The winds of war are blowing again through the region. Presently, this is what is happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, but it could easily spread elsewhere.”
Russian plan(s) for the Balkans
The new concept of Russian foreign policy, adopted on 30th November 2016, foresees the constructive and multifaceted cooperation with European countries that are not parts of military alliances”. For the first time in history of contemporary Russia, President Vladimir Putin defined the Concept of Foreign Policy, which under Article 69 provides for respect of choice of the European states that are not members of military alliances.
Sergey Zeleznik, then Secretary to General Council of the ruling Russian Party United Russia, and one of the closest party associates of Vladimir Putin, said in December 2016 that Russia was in favor of establishing an alliance of “military neutral and sovereign countries” in the Balkans that would include Serbia, Montenegro, BiH, and Macedonia. The Plan was marked as B-4.
The Russian Duma (Parliament) welcomed in their address of 22nd June 2016 the agreement of the politicians of the “Balkans Four” who was supposed to become, as was underlined, the “foundation of the regional security architecture”. The announcement followed the Zeleznik’s success in securing signing of 16 declarations and memoranda with 10 parties from Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and BiH entity of Republika Srpska. As a direct consequence followed the proclamation of “neutrality” of Serbia, what was later taken as a basis for developing a national security strategy, and then proclamation of “neutrality” of the BiH entity of Republika Srpska (now used as an argument against Atlantic integrations of both Serbia and RS).
The case of Montenegro is the best illustration of the plan B-4. The attempted coup involved operatives from Russia and Serbia (as proven by the ruling of the court in Montenegro). The coup had been supported also by the leading Montenegrin opposition leaders – Andrija Mandić, Milan Knežević and others, who enjoy unquestionable support of Milorad Dodik and Aleksandar Vučić. (Vučić and Dodik have been supporting them in public also in the recent developments in Montenegro – the massive protests organized by the Serbian Orthodox Church against the law that aims to transfer a large part of the assets of the Serbian Orthodox Church to the State of Montenegro.)
With Montenegro joining NATO and with clear commitment of the Northern Macedonia to join NATO, the Russian Plan B-4 to establish a Russian enclave in the Balkans has finally seen its end in 2018.
The prevented activities of the Russian intelligence services in 2018, particularly in the case of double agent Skripal (Sergei Skripal was poisoned together with his daughter in British city of Salisbury), and the case of OPCW (attack at the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), as well as the Plan B-4 under which the attempted coup and liquidation of Milo Đukanović in Montenegro were carried out, as well as the attempt to cause the fall of Zoran Zaev, leader of opposition in Macedonia (who had been the one breaking up the pro-Russian forces), and destabilization of BiH in 2018, have temporarily disrupted the Russian attacks, but also caused the Putin’s “deep cleaning” in the intelligence community of Russia, forcing him to formulate a new plan for the Western Balkans.
With the failure of the Plan B-4, in the new plan Serbia and Republika Srpska became the main advocates and realizers of the Russian enclave in Europe. The aim is to continually work on destabilization of NATO and the European Union in the Balkans, and to block Bosnia and Herzegovina on its paths towards Atlantic and European integrations.
Arrival of Matviyenko to BiH
An integral part of the new Russian plan – which sees Dodik “promoted” to the most prominent Russian player in the Western Balkans (judging by his statements and actions) – included supporting Dodik to win the Presidency of BiH, but also the supporting SNSD party in the elections acting against the opposition in RS. This new turn in policy, following the loss of Montenegro and Northern Macedonia, is manifested in the aggressive increase of pressure at BiH, connected to the arrival of the President of the Upper House of Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation Valentina Matviyenko to official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, during which, abusing the state institutions and the media, she did not hide the objectives of the Russian policy in BiH: termination of OHR, strengthening of the entities, reform of the Constitutional Court and Prosecution of BiH, open support to the Republika Srpska and Milorad Dodik, and stopping progress of BiH on its path towards Euro and Atlantic integrations. Since the coming of Matviyenko, strong attacks at BiH started where all major Russian foreign policy levers are used: economic, political and propaganda activities.
One more reminder of an important detail of the visit by Matviyenko. Her appearances in BiH were followed by individual reactions, announcements by OHR and the American Embassy in Sarajevo, and information were published that Matviyenko was on the American and European black list because of her involvement in the Crimea annexation. However, what also followed was the apology by Dragan Čović, then member of Presidency of BiH, to Matvyenko for the “public reaction”? After the elections in October 2018, Dodik entered the Presidency of BiH, but not Čović.
Here is important to mention the (then) role of Croatia, (as it became apparent in the Agrokor affair, it played the role of the “vassal” of Russian policy), which provided unquestionable support to Čović in BiH, and it perfectly suited him to, together with Milorad Dodik, (continue) to work to destabilize BiH and undermine its institutions.
In view of the political changes in Croatia – election of new president and expected election of the leader of HDZ, which is the most influential party in Croatia, but also in BiH through its sister party of HDZ BiH – there is an expectation of change in the Croatian foreign policy towards BiH, because although a NATO member, due to the policy of Milorad Dodik, which is supported by Čović, Croatia now has pro-Russian forces at their border.
Another sign of such political changes is the silence of official Zagreb after Čović’s visit to Russia in February (where he met with, among others, Matvyenko), as well as the lack of reaction to the recent big crisis in BiH caused by Dodik’s blockade of the state institutions and his talk about secession. This silence was broken by some Croatian media, after the reaction by the Quinta countries and the High Representative in BiH, pointing at Banja Luka and Belgrade as the main culprits for the undermined security in the region.
Role of Croatia
If the policy of the official Zagreb is considered in economic context, no reaction should be expected, because Russian banks have taken over the control package of Agrokor few years ago, and Russians control major part of the energy sector in Croatia. However, support to Bosnia and Herzegovina in confronting the destabilizing Russian or pro-Russian forces, which seriously undermine security in the Balkans and beyond, can also take the form of the absence of the earlier official support to Dragan Čović and his coalition with Dodik. This, certainly, includes the blocking of the process of establishing Government of the Federation of BiH for 16 months after the general elections, which has been achieved by HDZ with their demands to adopt changes to the Election Law in order to strengthen the ethnic rights to the detriment of civil rights, while ignoring at that the rulings of the Strasbourg court that make reference to the Election Law of BiH – the very law they want to change.
Because of his doings, Milorad Dodik was placed on the American black list, and the High Representative is thinking to bar his travels to European countries. There is no doubt that isolation of Milorad Dodik is important in preventing his destruction of BiH, and that the USA and other members of the Quinta, who are guarantors of the Dayton peace agreement, really can exert influence on Dodik. This was proven by his signing the Reform Program, and even more by his retreating after the most recent crisis of him blocking state institutions and announcing secession of the Republika Srpska.
However, equally important is the role of Aleksandar Vučić, who provides full support to Dodik. Of course, in all this, as is now clear, both Dodik and Vučić are fully supported by Russia and the Russian Federation is working to achieve the objectives of its foreign policy in BiH, as well as in the Western Balkans, using a new kind of warfare. Still, Serbia has to deal with the question of Kosovo. And while in the past Milorad Dodik used the issue of Kosovo as an argument to threaten with secession of Republika Srpska, it appears (after the most recent crisis in BiH) that the issue of Milorad Dodik could be resolved in the same package with resolution of the relations between Kosovo and Serbia. This is because the central role in both cases is played by Belgrade, i.e. Vučić.
In fact, it turned out that the united western countries in the Balkans, when they have clear and shared positions and goals, still have much stronger influence than the Russian Federation. Otherwise, security in the Balkans would be additionally undermined; the Montenegro case and developments in the Macedonian Sobranje (Parliament) demonstrated how far Russian and pro-Russian forces are willing to go. In the Balkans, a serious hybrid war with the Russian Federation has been imposed onto the West, and its outcome will directly impact the security and future relations in Europe itself.